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It may have taken a pandemic, but two local bagel-makers who were busy doing other things have now found the time to launch their own bagel businesses. Ethel’s Bagels and Hella Bagels are the newest additions on the Bay Area bagel scene.
Nicolas Abrams is the chef-owner of Ethel’s Bagels, which he started in April. The Petaluma-based business is named after his maternal grandmother, Ethel Ritter, who always served a bagel brunch during family visits in Los Angeles. (Abrams’ website says he aims to “update the simplicity of a Jewish 1980s breakfast table.”) Ethel’s photo adorns the bagel bags, and the schmear labels have not only a Magen David, but also “oy vey” in all caps in case anyone missed the theme.
A professional chef and food industry veteran, Abrams began thinking about starting a bagel business four years ago, but it was only when he was laid off from his latest chef job that he got the chance to pursue it full time.
“I began thinking a lot about my grandmother and how much she created community, and her warmth. I wanted to honor her, and the bagel idea really resonated with me,” he said. “It took the pandemic to finally get it going.”
Of course, four years ago was another lifetime in Bay Area bagel years, and Abrams was afraid that with all the newcomers, “I might have missed the boat.”
But he began baking and handing out the bagels to the families of his kid’s classmates, tweaking his recipe according to the feedback.
One process secret that he was willing to share is that he puts a bit of beer in the boiling water. And going by the locavore ethos, he’s using Lagunitas Beer. He also adds a sourdough starter, which is being used by quite a few Bay Area bagel-makers these days. In this case, it makes the bagels taste more like sourdough bread.
Abrams said he’s going for a New York hybrid. “I call it a West Coast bagel with an East Coast attitude,” he says.
He has some rather “cheffy” schmears, too, like pickled shallot and herb, and black garlic and sherry, neither of which would be out of place on a crostini at a cocktail party. He also has “kits” of toppings to put on the bagel that will rotate with the seasons. One has avocado, another has olives; one with prosciutto seems incongruous with the Jewish branding, though.
Ethel’s has nine flavors, including pumpernickel and cinnamon-raisin, and the more unusual Parmesan and black pepper. The business is a family affair, with his wife helping with marketing and his son with deliveries, available two days a week in Sonoma County and one day per week in Marin, San Francisco and the East Bay.
Abrams said he hopes to open a Jewish deli some day. “I want to have homemade pastrami, rye bread, like what you’d get in L.A. or New York,” he said.
Hella Bagels is a home-based startup in Oakland, where chef-owner Blake Hunter can make only 100 or so bagels at a time, which he does on Sunday mornings. But if we’ve learned anything from the rise of bagel obsessives like Boichik Bagels’ Emily Winston, such startups are worth paying attention to.
Hunter is a Bay Area native, from Antioch and Concord. Though he isn’t religiously observant, he joked, “Maybe I should start going to temple now that I’m making bagels.”
His parents moved here from New Jersey right before he was born. Growing up, a “New York bagel was like a carrot dangled in front of me,” he said. “I was always told, ‘You’ve never had a good bagel.’” Nonetheless, there was a time as a hungry high-schooler that he ate two bagels for breakfast every morning.
Hunter is more of an entrepreneur than a baker and doesn’t have a background in the food business, but once he began dreaming of opening a bagel place, he read everything he could get his hands on.
“At this point, it’s been about two years where I really just told myself that ‘this is it’ and started learning about baking, the science and all the nuances,” he said. “I went all-in on bagel culture and the education and I’ve grown and learned so much.”
Two weeks before shelter in place, he started delivering in the East Bay (between San Leandro and El Cerrito), and he continues doing the deliveries himself.
“I had been baking for two years, and beyond my girlfriend and my dog, I wanted to know what people thought,” he said. He started making bagels just for friends and family first, but then others noticed his Instagram page and started placing orders there (he doesn’t have a website). Good luck scoring some yourself, though; the entire run each Sunday usually sells out within seconds.
Hunter is still employed elsewhere, but he hopes to give Hella Bagels a go. “Shelter in place has lasted longer than I thought, so I’m figuring it out by day,” he said. “But eventually doing schmears in a food truck is the goal.”
The branding on his bags says “The Hyphy Hebrew Has Hella Bagels” in a font modeled on Hebrew letters. (“Hyphy” is Oakland slang for “hyper.”) He has seven flavors but “nothing crazy, as I read that some people get really offended by that,” Hunter said. His schmears, however, do come in quite nontraditional flavors, such as sambal and black bean scallion.
Hella Bagels are boiled in water with barley malt syrup. While Hunter says he’s inspired by but not wedded to the New York bagel, I found it a pretty close approximation, in both flavor and chew. (Note: Given my yichus, in that both my parents were raised in the tri-state area, I’ll admit I consider a New York bagel the benchmark against which all others are measured.)
Because he is still earning an income, Hunter has so far donated any profits from Hella Bagels to nonprofits, most recently to organizations fighting for racial or LGBTQ justice for Pride Month.
Though it’s still very early in Hella Bagels’ trajectory, Hunter waxed a bit philosophical about his plans. In the short time he’s been working on the project, he said, he’s learned so much about himself and has determined that starting this business is what he most wants to do.
“I’m just trying to make people happy by giving them a good experience,” he said.